The Best Summer of My Life
I lay down on the floor, breathing deeply, focusing my attention on my breath rather than my problem. Gradually I cooled out and began to look at the situation in a positive light. Life is full of experiences, some pleasant and some not, each with its lessons. A trip through the Greek Army might be just the experience I needed for my own spiritual growth.
In February of 1973 my father took our family to the United States embassy in Athens to have our passports renewed. The Greek secretary who processed our forms refused to renew my citizenship. "Your son is no longer an American citizen." she informed my father.
My father raised hell. I was eager to go out to a baseball diamond and prove myself worthy of my American passport but my father's towering frame intimidated the secretaries and bureaucrats to the point where they were eager to give me my citizenship back, if only to get rid of us. I proudly accepted my new passport and thought little of the incident.
Six months later I received my induction notice for the Greek Armed Forces. In Greece, everyone at the age of nineteen goes into the service of the country. The memory of Turkish occupation still hangs over Greece like a black cloud. The Army must be kept strong to repel any future invasion. The Greek attitude was that one Greek could whoop the hell out of ten Turks. Nevertheless, all must serve. Even those whose grandfathers had immigrated to America in 1915 and whose mother's family were Jews from Russia and Turks from Anatolia.
As long as I maintained my student status I was OK. My friend Nicky attended Pierce College in Athens for eight years to avoid the military. By carefully changing his major every so often he had remained a sophomore. As a student, I could apply for an alien's permit and not worry about the draft. Little men in dark suits would come to visit me and I would pretend I spoke no Greek. They would laugh, look at their list and go hassle someone else. They were just doing their jobs. Mostly they would hang out in the cafeneon drinking ouzo and playing backgammon. They didn't scare me. I was secure in the safety net of my college education. I would rarely go to school. I just enjoyed living in Greece and the luxury of going to a college that I could make good grades while doing no work whatsoever.
In December of 1973 I received two letters from the school. One was my grades. I had gotten two "B's" and a "C." The other letter was a little more distressing. It informed me that I had been dismissed from Pierce College for failing to maintain a healthy GPA. Nobody at the school would answer my questions. How could I flunk out of college with a B-minus average? I was sent from one person to the next but no one could tell me anything except that I could re-apply for the fall semester, nine months away.
So now I was a non-student with Greek heritage and no residence permit. Without that permit my passport was useless. I could not leave the country. The joy of being in Greece diminished as my predicament dominated my thoughts.
Forging a paper that said I was a student was not too difficult. I had to take it to the alien's bureau every couple of days and try to get my residence permit. I had a file there that was always misplaced. I hoped that when they eventually found it there was no induction notice attached to it. The little men in dark suits were starting to ask questions around the neighborhood. The last week of February my permit came through. I left the next day. As my train was leaving the station in Athens I waved goodbye to my mother and my friend Nicky. As soon as they were out of sight I swallowed a handful of Valiums and slept through the three day ride to Munich.
I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in February of 1975. By April I was fully absorbed into American society. I had gotten a real steady job and my employers at the Waffle Shop had high hopes for me. Perhaps someday I might even manage my own little Waffle Shop.
I was laying in the sun at the Estes Park Apartments pool. I was thinking of spiritual matters and trying to get into a meditative state when all of a sudden I was hit by the sunshine and the clear blue skies. I remembered my inheritance that was gathering dust in a New York bank. Seven days later I was standing on the docks of Brindizi, Italy, waiting to get on a boat to Greece. I was pretty nervous. I had to go through three different officials, getting stamped and declaring what little I had to declare. I could have been more at ease. They probably wouldn't stop me from entering the country.
I took the slow train to Athens. I looked out the window the entire time, trying to bask in my heightened awareness. I was in a very clear-headed state and it seemed like the best way to be in Greece. I felt as if I had the mind of a poet. That night my friends and I went out and got drunk in the Plaka.
The next day I visited my old neighborhood. I went to the house my family used to live in which was now being rented by some friends of ours, the Hunts. I was talking to the children when Mr. Hunt came out of his room. He looked distressed and closed the curtains in the room we were standing in. "The police were here yesterday," he told me, "looking for you."
I acted as fearless and calm as I could, then said goodbye and slipped over the back wall. I took all the back roads to Dorian's house where I was staying, though through some miscalculation I had to walk right past the local police station, in terror. When I arrived at Dorian's, I decided I needed to get my head together. I lay down on the floor, breathing deeply, focusing my attention on my breath rather than my problem. Gradually I cooled out and began to look at the situation in a positive light. Life is full of experiences, some pleasant and some not, each with its lessons. A trip through the Greek Army might be just the experience I needed for my own spiritual growth. A feeling of serenity came over me as I picked up the phone to call Chip Ammerman, my former high school principal and an old friend of the family. "What!? Are you crazy?!" He yelled at me over the phone. "This is no meta-physical journey you'll be going on. It will be hell and you might not make it through alive."
My serenity, obviously a fragile one, vanished in a puff of smoke. I was packed and out the door headed for the nearest exit.
My father's travel agent friend Mr. Demertgis sat before my friend Leigh and I. We were planning my escape route. "Forget the airport," he said. "That's the first place they will have your name. Patras is out because that's the border they reported your entrance. If I were you I would go to Samos and perhaps take a fishing boat to Turkey." Great advice. I saw myself being shot as a spy trying to enter Turkey.
Leigh suggested a trip to the embassy where he had lots of connections. I sat in the office of the head of security who had formerly been the chief of police. He was coincidentally also named Mr. Demertgis. He made calls to his army connections and found out that the military police were looking for me. I had been court-martialed for not appearing for service and I would have to spend six months in detention before reporting for basic training. As far as he knew, the US government could do nothing to help me. This trip to the embassy was really putting my mind at ease. What were the chances that I would meet two Mr. Demertgises in one day and they would both be useless?
Leigh and I went to another office for more information. To our surprise my friends Dorian and Nick Nikalau were there. They had heard about my dilemma. Dorian said he knew of ways to get out that he was sure would work until he heard that I had already been court-martialed. He quickly abandoned the sinking ship. Things looked bleak. As we were standing around, cheerfully comparing Greece and Turkey's armed forces strength, a young bearded diplomat came in with a big smile. "Which one of you is Matthew Econopouly?" he asked.
"I am." I reluctantly conceded while wishing I wasn't.
"You're in trouble my friend. My advice to you is to hightail it out of here on the first plane."
At this point I demanded, as best I could, that they get me out of the country. There must be some channel for smuggling people out. "Unofficially there is," he said. "But we wouldn't jeopardize it by letting you use it in case we need it for someone important (like a mercenary, drug runner, arms merchant, hired assassin etc.). Besides that, the Greek government gets very angry when we interfere in these situations. In other words you are on your own." This had become apparent. I stopped thinking of the American embassy as my helpful friend overseas. There was nothing left to do but go to the Plaka and have a big going away party. Perhaps someone would come up with a plan.
As it turned out, the profound effect of the retsina and good food inspired us to come up with two plans:
The first plan was simple. Leave. Tomorrow.
Plan two was more to my liking. Dorian had a house on the beach. I decided to hang out in Greece for the summer. I would keep a low profile and sooner or later a solution would come. If not, I would accept my fate and deal with it. But for now I would have a good time.
A few nights later I was again drinking retsina in the Plaka with my old friends. I'd convinced a couple of them to take a vow that they would enlist if I should be caught, though I did not really expect them to follow through with it. A woman from my old neighborhood came up to me bringing greetings from an old friend, Anastas, an Armenian refugee whom we had always been suspicious of being a neighborhood informer during the Junta."Anastas said that if you come to the neighborhood he will have to turn you over to the police. He asks you to stay away from there." She told me.
A few days later I met a woman named Sandra. She was Scottish and drank a bottle of VAT 67 per day. She had friends with a yacht. They would get me out "for sure" she said. We had an affair. She was also Dorian's girlfriend.
One night I met up with Dino. We arranged to go to the island of Ios with Lue, his girlfriend, the very next day. We got completely drunk that night. The next morning I woke up at six to make my way down to the docks. I staggered around the house but could not get my knapsack packed. I went to bed. That was Thursday. Friday morning I woke up early and looked at the boat schedule. There was no boat on Friday afternoon. The morning boat had already left. Saturday Nick Nikalau and I took a cab to Pireaus to catch the boat. We were late and raced through traffic getting there just in time. There was no room. The boat was full. We knew that Sunday's boat would be almost empty. We had a big going away party for ourselves in the Plaka. We woke up broke. It being Sunday, we had nowhere to cash our travelers checks so we couldn't even get to Pireaus to get tickets. Monday I was sick. Tuesday's boat was canceled. Getting to the islands was not as easy as it seemed.
Finally on Wednesday we found ourselves sitting on the deck of a steamer with a thousand other young people. The sky was a bright blue and the orange backpacks of the Canadian travelers glowed. We left the city behind and sailed into the Aegean. For some unexplainable reason I decided to get off by myself on the island of Paros. I told my friends that I would meet them on Ios the following day. On Paros I met a band of helpless young American travelers. They wanted to eat and I translated the menu for them and explained what all the dishes were. It was arduous but I really felt useful. It reminded me of a routine we had many years before on Mykonos. We would invite all the foreigners we saw to a big dinner in a restaurant. We never had any money so we would encourage everyone to try the home-made retsina and exotic dishes. We would have twenty or more people with us and when the bill came everyone would contribute generously. We would serve as mediators and treasurers. After everything was paid for we would pocket a thousand drachmas or more. Enough to spend another week on the island. No one ever complained.
On Paros I met a woman from South Africa. She had just returned from Japan where she had gone for acupuncture treatment. She lectured me on the theory of macrobiotics and for the first time that summer I didn't get drunk at dinner. We shared a room but I didn't try to seduce her. I was afraid. She was like a saint. It would be like coming on to Mother Teresa. The next day I left my knapsack on the dock and went swimming. I met a Danish girl who I had seen on the boat and we had lunch together. We got very high from the wine. As we walked to the dock we were met by the South African woman. They asked me if I was still leaving but I had not made a decision. The ship was entering the harbor and I had to make the choice of staying with these two beautiful ladies or going on to Ios to see my friends and most certainly party til dawn every night. Last call was announced for boarding passengers. It was like I had the little angel in one ear and the devil in the other, both babbling so loud that I couldn't hear what either was saying, thus leaving the decision-making totally up to me. Not my strongest attribute. Stay or go? Heaven or self-destruction (which can also be fun). I made my choice and grabbed my pack. I was the last person up the gangplank and as the boat pulled away from Paros, I waved goodbye, proud that I had been able to make a decision and sure I had made the right one. Maybe.
It may have been the right decision to leave but it was the wrong boat. The boat to Ios was late. I was on the boat going back to Athens.
I had nowhere to go that would not be an embarrassment except to Sandra's apartment. Sandra was not home. She had gone to Ios looking for me. When she couldn't find me on Ios she went to Paros and then back to Ios. Finally Dorian's friend Haris, or maybe it was his twin brother Panos, (Yes that Haris and Panos), told her that I had gone to Loutraki (wherever that was) to be with a girl named Maria (whoever she was). Sandra made up her mind never to talk to me again.
I was with my brother's friend Larry at an English pub called the Red Lion, behind the Hilton. I had convinced him to join the Greek army with me and between toasts to our future in the military I was calling Sandra. I finally got through to her and we arranged to meet. I had three hours to kill before our rendezvous at an old restaurant in Monastiraki square. Larry and I decided we would stop for a beer at every possible place between the Hilton and the square. We were with an American actor named Andy who was also stuck in Greece because of problems with his military status. He was so pro-American we were getting nauseous. Finally I broke the news to him that his big wonderful country could not keep his half-Greek ass out of the Greek army. We left him stunned and staring at his beer as we began our journey to the flea-market.
Stopping at every establishment was more difficult than we expected. We had laid out the rules on the way. If they sold beer, we had to stop and have one, whether it was a first class hotel bar or a small cafeneon. What we hadn't planned on were the roadside kiosks which along with gum, newspapers, cigarettes, and everything else imaginable, also sold beer. When I finally reached Sandra I collapsed at her table. She tried to be angry with me but had difficulty. With a superhuman effort that my survival depended on I was able to keep her laughing and forgetful of the fact that for the last week she had hated my guts. I had saved the relationship and my escape plans.
Two days later I was laying on the lawn at the Athens Hilton waiting for Sandra to come home. When I saw her walking towards me I waited for a smile of recognition or wave of acknowledgment. She didn't say anything until she walked past me. "Get up and run," she said. "I'm being followed. We ran and jumped into a taxi which took us to Patission, on the other side of town. She said she had been followed by two plainclothes cops. We were on the lam, like Bonnie and Clyde. We decided to hide out in a movie theater. "Blow-up" was playing.
Sandra found out that she was under surveillance. There were two men at her office asking questions and two more watching her apartment. She started to freak out and moved into a hotel. She was afraid to contact me and we saw less and less of each other. She talked to her friends with the yacht. My departure date was the 15th of August. That was the last day I could leave the country by legal means too. After two months I would need a residence permit. I trusted that things would work out and went to spend my last week on the island of Sifnos. I met up with Dino there. He had befriended two beautiful Swiss girls named Bridgette and Monica. They were both sixteen. I really liked Monica but I could not submit to my deepest desires because on top of everything else, I now thought I had VD. We held hands and kissed but it never got any further and I never told her why. I suppose she thought that I was a gentleman.
We all slept on the beach at Pharos. We climbed a mountain to the monastery of Prophitti Illias for the panagiri, where we were fed lamb, lots of wine and watched the villagers dance to the local musicians. We slept on the roof of the monastery, listening to the bells of the sheep that wandered around the mountain, and walked down the next morning. The four of us left Sifnos on the same boat and said our goodbyes in Athens.
My last few days in the city I spent going crazy. I could not get hold of Sandra. It was obvious that she did not want to be found by me. I finally located her in another hotel. "I can't get you out," she told me. It was August 14th. My goodbye was cold. I had a lot on my mind.
Dorian was infatuated with a fourteen year old girl. He wanted to go out with her that night after he finished seeing Gigi, a beautiful blonde model. His plan was simple. I would go to his young girlfriends house, meet the relatives, talk for awhile until I convinced them that I was a suitable and responsible chaperone, and then take her to Plaka where I would hand her over to the somewhat less responsible Dorian, who of course would have a date for me. We would have one last wild night in Athens. All went according to plan except for two things. Dorian never brought a girl for me. In fact he never showed up himself. I spent my last night in Athens baby-sitting a fourteen year old girl who wanted to talk about nothing but Dorian. It was hell.
Dorian and his girlfriend of the day, Maria, drove me to the train station. They sat in the front and argued about everything (they loved to argue), while I sat in the back reading an article about Timothy Leary in Playboy magazine, trying to keep distracted. They seemed to barely notice that I was leaving. They waved goodbye and continued their argument. So once again I was sitting on the slow train, this time on my way from Athens to Patras. I sat looking out the window trying to regain that centered state of consciousness that I had entered the country with. The landscape was beautiful but I could not appreciate it. I was going to try to sneak out through the very border that had reported my entering the country.
It was August 15th, the celebration day of the Virgin Mary and Patras looked deserted. It was ominous and I was scared. I purchased my ticket. I was so paranoid I was reluctant to give the ticket salesman my name. I wandered around trying to keep a low profile. Two hours later I got in line at immigration and customs. The ship was on the other side of a fence but first I had to get past two men with a big box full of colored cards with the names of everyone who had entered the country, date of entry, port of entry and nationality. In my case Greek/American. As I watched the people in line before me I noticed that each one had a card in that box. This was the end of the line for me. I thought about how much fun I had this summer and at this moment it did not seem worth it. I was imagining the scene about to happen. I would be yelled at and then taken away. My fellow passengers would wonder what it was all about and as they sailed off to Brindisi and made friends with one another on the boat they would say "I wonder what happened to that poor guy they dragged off. I wonder what he did? I wonder where he is now?" By then I would probably be in some dark and smelly cell, or else handcuffed sitting between two burly MP's, in the back of a jeep headed for Athens.
I tried to take in the scene and enjoy my last few moments of freedom, but how much fun can you have when you are waiting in the line that leads to your doom? It was my turn. "Passport please." The official said. He was dressed in a uniform and there were lots of cops around. No way I could make a break for it. Then it happened. He was about to pick up my card when his partner asked him a question. As he responded he absent-mindedly stamped my passport without looking at the card.
I couldn't believe it.
It was the best summer of my life.